You have to work at albums like Kid A. You have to sit at home night after night and give yourself over to the paranoid millenial atmosphere as you try to decipher elliptical snatches of lyrics and puzzle out how the titles […] might refer to the songs. In other words, you have to be sixteen. […] Kid A demands the patience of the devoted; both patience and devotion become scarcer commodities once you start picking up a paycheck.
When populist scribbler Nick Hornby wrote those words in an article for the October 2000 issue of The New Yorker, he didn’t just fail to hit the nail on the head, he demonstrated he had no idea there was even a nail there. It’s sad that Kid A should have elicited such a superficial, æsthetically decrepit view, but Hornby’s was not a lone voice; assorted critics—and, no doubt, fans too—found themselves discombobulated by this album, and of course, anger and rejection so easily follow from incomprehension in simpler minds. However, in mentioning a teenage aspect, Hornby, without meaning to, actually got something right: Kid A, released 10 years ago this week, is Radiohead‘s “puberty album”, marking their musical transition from adolescence to adulthood. Hornby’s response is no different from the all-too-common parental reaction to this process, characterised by degrees of irritation and fury at how much their loved one has changed. In fact, “changed” doesn’t quite cover it; Radiohead’s remarkable progression from OK Computer, three years earlier, brings to mind the exclamation of shock from Bottom’s companion’s in Act III of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “bless thee! thou art translated!”
“Everything In Its Right Place” is the perfect album opener, the delicate electric piano yielding to a hypnotic track that spends its duration preoccupied by two chords, gently oscillating between tonic and dominant, favouring the latter. The dominant chord mixes major and minor tonalities, and when combined with a third chord (the flattened submediant, for those really interested) the result is a kind of fluid in which the verses are suspended, moving yet ultimately immobile. Yorke’s obscure lyrics bespeak their own sense; they, too, are in their ‘right place’, although it seems fair to assume that phrases other than “Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon” and “There are two colours in my head” could have been used to equal effect (this is true throughout the album); Yorke’s voice is more an instrument than a singer here, one also expanded and extended into the distance, creating a shifting, glitched background texture. The title track unfolds amidst early electronic references, Yorke’s voice horribly contorted and autotuned through a vocoder. The drums here form a vital core, as well as a landmark, something to hang on to when all around seems strange. They come into their own during the latter half of the song, as the music pauses, then blossoms into an extended ambient coda; the gentle beats retain a sense of momentum when the rest of the music could quite happily drift away. Guitars make their first demonstrative appearance in the grinding bass underlay of “The National Anthem”, over which electronic strands writhe and shimmer. The dense, bass-heavy claustrophobia of the opening brings to mind The Stone Roses; this is hardly a song, though, the track rooted to the spot on a single chord. Yorke’s filtered, ringing vocals are soon surrounded in a brass choir that show complete disregard for the track’s stasis, their contributions meandering in all harmonic directions. This curious demeanour seems directly linked to the lyrics, that speak of how “Everyone around here / Everyone is so near / Everyone has the fear”; the culmination of the track suggests things have been only just held in place, the music fragmenting and dissolving.
“How to Disappear Completely” immediately brings together two utterly different sound-worlds; in the foreground, the familiar trappings of the band—acoustic guitar, bass, delicate drums, vocals—but in the background, distant but omnipresent, is a strange string chord (heard momentarily alone at the start); it’s an unnerving, threatening presence, in keeping with Yorke’s out-of-body lyrics. Halfway through, however, all seems well: the strings have ebbed away to emerge as a unified part of the song, which is surely one of Radiohead’s most beautiful and lyrical; later, though, the strings begin to slide erratically, their glissandi briefly causing the music to come undone. Yorke speaks of floating down the river Liffey, and in the instrumental track that follows, “Treefingers”, it’s as though we’ve plunged deep into it; this is a submerged music, where organ chords resonate and guitars chime, their highest frequencies lost; it brings the first half of Kid A to a sombre close.
The second act ostensibly makes a stab at a new direction, the track title “Optimistic” saying it all; it’s the most conventional song so far, although all of this belies a diffidence and insecurity (even sarcasm?) in the lyrics, “If you try the best you can / The best you can is good enough”. The song determines to remain upbeat, despite Yorke’s helpless lines about being a “Nervous messed up marionette / Floating around on a prison ship”; the positivity is barely skin-deep, and the incongruous, funky coda is almost laughable in such a context. Fittingly, “In Limbo” rudely cuts it off, descending into a multi-layered morass of guitar gestures and restrained drums (The Stone Roses again come to mind). The dense, dour tone here seems to question “Optimistic” before it—could the refrain “You’re living in a fantasy world” be aimed in its direction?—emphasising the sense of loneliness and lack of connection lamented about in “How To Disappear Completely”; Yorke’s cries toward the end are particularly emotive.
Things reach a bit of a head in “Idioteque”, a track extremely redolent of Aphex Twin. The incessant, distorted beats and much of the opening material is fixed at the sonic epicentre, encased in a horridly narrow stereo field (bordering on mono), echoing the opening words, “Who’s in a bunker?”. It’s Radiohead at their most polarised, the hectic beats entirely at odds with the dark, apocalyptic message, a message made slightly incoherent by its sheer urgency. “Morning Bell” segues from it astride an irregular 5/4 metre; the musical tone is lighter, but the lyrics now describe torments resulting from the schism of relationship. Belongings are divvied up, others are thrown out—a metaphor for Yorke’s own sensibilities: “Clothes are on the lawn as well as the furniture / And I might as well”—and the agony becomes focussed when the lyrics evoke Solomon: “Cut the kids in half”. Kid A ends with an exquisite elegy, “Motion Picture Soundtrack”, where Yorke’s eloquent pain becomes blunted and numb, aided by “red wine and sleeping pills […] cheap sex and sad films”. The mournful harmonium accompaniment is elaborated by technicolor harp whooshes for the second verse, accentuating the lack of reality; Yorke’s frail final line, “I will see you in the next life”, finds some kind of ascent, ambiguous to the last. There follows a minute’s silence, after which sine tones usher in a short flourish, coruscating with light, hinting at something beyond, something transcendent.
“It would be nice”, concluded Nick Hornby, “if the band’s members recognized that the enormous, occasionally breathtaking gifts they have – for songwriting, and singing, and playing, and connecting, and inspiring – are really nothing to be ashamed of”. What the devotionless, impatient Hornby entirely failed to grasp is that Kid A was the first true testament to Radiohead’s gifts (Amnesiac would be the second), an album conveying its complex vision single-mindedly, introspectively and, ultimately, brilliantly. Few albums merit an unblemished 5-star rating; this is undoubtedly one of them.